“Let’s Shock The World!”

By PFC Cardinals Staff Writer Laura Healy
The Philadelphia Eagles were flying high. Quarterback Donovan McNabb celebrated his 62-yard touchdown pass to Wide Receiver DeShawn Jackson with a ball that Cardinals Cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie had just missed. McNabb flashed a smile as he ‘posed’ for a picture that might be taken of him (this is not a bad thing, it’s just the way McNabb plays). Beyond what was going on in University of Phoenix Stadium, the media and everybody outside Arizona, breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Philly finally led and Arizona was finally going to come up short. I say “finally” because that’s what the media types were waiting for. The Arizona Cardinals team was going to “finally” fail. In the UoP. press box, I’m sure there were sighs of relief and many laptops being opened. Sportswriters started writing the story of how Philly had knocked off those pesky Cardinals.

The Eagles missed their two-point conversion attempt, but it didn’t matter. The game was over, right?
The upstart Arizona Cardinals could go back to the cellar, and Philadelphia could go to the Super Bowl. After all, the Cardinals “had no chance” against Philly in the NFC Championship game. Wrong! What happened next was amazing. It shouldn’t have happened, yet it did. The Cards offense came back onto the field and collectively proved they wanted it more. The drive to win the game would go down in history books as one of the finest ever made during the playoffs.

With 10:45 left in the 4th quarter, QB Kurt Warner simply stepped into the huddle to give the play to the offense. First down, RB Edgerrin James was stopped for a loss, leading to the commentator’s remark, “And now the Eagles would like to see their defense take over this game the way they have taken over the first two post-season games.” Sorry, that’s not what happened. Warner found WR Larry Fitzgerald for a 14-yard gain. After completing an 8-yard pass to Tight End Leonard Pope, the Cards tried on the next two downs to run it up the middle, and were stopped a half-a-yard shy of the first down marker. With 7:57 left, they could have punted and relied on their Defense to get the ball back, but there was no question in Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s mind they were going for it.

Flashback to the Eagles last game against the New York Giants. On two separate drives in the 4th quarter, the Eagles stopped the Giants on 4th and a yard or less. Both plays went right up the gut. Flash forward to this point in this game; 4th and less then one with the ball on the Eagles 49 yard line. Coach Whisenhunt knew the Eagles had stopped the Giants and he elected to run a sweep to the right with rookie RB Tim Hightower. The key block came from FB Terelle Smith, which sprung Hightower free to go around the corner for a 6-yard gain. When interviewed, Coach Whizenunt said there he had no hesitation calling the play because he honestly believed it would be successful.

A run and a pass to Fitzgerald put the ball on the Philly 23-yard line with 6:30 left on the clock. Another run by Edge and another pass to Fitzgerald moved the ball to the 14 with 5:05 and counting. The commentator said Arizona was well within range of Kicker Neil Racker. For all they get right, they were dead wrong in this case. Arizona wasn’t playing for a FG. They wanted a touchdown. When no one else thought they would make it, they believed. Fitzgerald celebrated after every play. Higtower busted a run, putting his head down and knocking the defender that came to stop him, to the 9-yard line. Fitz celebrated with him as they went back to the huddle.

Two more plays gained minimum yards, leaving the Cardinals with a third down and goal to go with 2:59 on the clock. Philly called a timeout, obviously wanting to save time for their offense once the Cardinals kicked a field goal. But the Cards weren’t done. Warner simply did a pump fake towards Anquan Boldin on the right side. The Philly defense bit. Warner turned back the other way, and threw a short screen to Hightower, who would not be denied the End Zone with 2:53 left on the clock. Fitz, looking like a running gazelle, jumped up and down for joy. The Arizona Cardinals had put together a 14 play, 72-yard drive that chewed up almost 8 minutes on the clock to win the game.

About that drive, Warner told reporters, “I just didn’t see any panic. I mean I think that was the thing. I mean we got in the huddle, I don’t think a lot was said, I mean we knew what we had to accomplish. And guys mindset, nobody was panicking, nobody was going crazy, I mean we were just in the huddle, gonna say, ‘Hey, business like usual’.”

When everyone thought it was over, the Cardinals really did shock the world. But it wasn’t the 8 minutes of the Philly game that defined their success. Most often I have seen that failure breeds success if you know how to take the failure and learn from it. The New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl. The only reason they could do that was playing, and losing to them in the last game of the season. If the schedule had been different, the Patriots would have handed the Giants their heads on a silver platter. What the Giants learned in losing to the Patriots was, “We can beat them.”

For the Arizona Cardinals two monumental failures shaped the team in a way that they could not only compete in the playoffs, but they could dominate teams in the playoffs. The first was the game against the New York Jets. They gave up 34 points in the 2nd quarter to the Jets, and went in at halftime down 34-0. But they fought back, getting five straight drives for TD’s. The second half performance was 35-21. More importantly, it gave them confidence in their offense.

What no one realized was staying back east, instead of returning home for the week before the Jets, was, according to Coach Whisenhunt, a learning experience for his team off the field. Nobody paid any attention, including me. Especially since they lost to the Jets like they did. Now, I can join everyone else in admitting I had missed what he said. They now face the same kind of situation in the week before the game, although a bigger game with more spot-light, but with a young team something that didn’t matter before takes on a much greater significance now. There is no way to prepare for what they will go through this week, but the 2008 Cardinals came pretty close. Leave it to an engineer (Whiz is a graduate from Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Civil Engineering), to put that in place so early in case they ever needed it. Oh, like for Super Bowl XLIII.

The second failure was more important, a loss to the New England Patriots 47-7 in the snow. No player on the team wanted to play that game. Coach Whisenhunt proactively made the team practice in pads and get back to basics. Without the drubbing at the Patriot’s hands, Arizona would be at home watching the game, instead of participating in it. They came out against Seattle with a disciplined defense, and Edge took over the RB duties again. Going into the playoffs, he was fresh, and suddenly they had a running game again.

What do I have to say about the Arizona Cardinals? It was clear from the very beginning after Coach Whisenhunt named Warner as the starting QB, that Arizona had as much talent as anyone in the NFL. The biggest area of weakness Coach Whiz addressed through the off-season and through the draft was defense. Two rookies, CB Rodgers-Cromartie, and RB Tim Hightower showed flashes in preseason that they were going to be good. Going into the season, the defense either played extremely well, or totally horribly, but that is a sign of having young players.

At the start of the season the Cardinals had CB Eric Green, CB Rod Hood, SS Adrian Wilson, and converted FS Antrelle Rolle. One thing that the media didn’t realize was that it would take Rolle time learn the new position. It wasn’t until the Cards played the Rams in St. Louis that I began to see Rolle looking comfortable in his new role. By the 10th game of the season, DRC started at CB, with veteran Ralph Brown coming in off the bench. It wasn’t until then that they started to jell, and in the last four games their defensive backfield was CB Rodegers-Cromartie, CB Hood, FS Rolle, SS Wilson, with Brown and Aaron Fransisco coming off the bench. Every one of these players has at least one INT or a fumble returned for a touchdown (Rolle).

On offense, when Hightower replaced Edgerrin James in the starting lineup, Coach Whiz said that the Cards would need Edge, if he would just be patient. The running game hardly got off the ground other than a 109-yard performance against St. Louis by Hightower. Arizona wrapped up the NFC West, much earlier than other teams. They didn’t know how to even react to that, because it had never happened before in their lifetimes. Thus, they went out and suffered losses.

The media coverage is almost at the speed of light. The building of a football team is over the course of a couple of years. There are teams that win from the beginning of the season. Other teams take longer. Arizona obviously fell into the latter category. That, coupled with bias against the Cardinals, because of their location, caused everyone to right them off. The “worst team that’s ever been in the playoffs” is now in the Super Bowl, on the cusp of greatness. Guess what? I think they will win.

The Arizona Cardinals are playing right now as good as their potential at the beginning of the season. I have seen the changes this team has undergone. So, I am not surprised to see the Cardinals in the Super Bowl. The potential was there, now we see it realized—or, “We Are Who We Thought We Were!”